Sparks was our Hotbed warm-up event, held in January 2009 at our home base, The Junction. Sparks was the opportunity for the writers to see their work on its feet for the first time, working with a director and actors to bring it to life. We heard from over 100 writers and chose 4, all of whom were new to the company – Effie Woods, Benjamin Craib, Alison Falconer and Janice Okoh. All plays were rehearsed and performed before a live and critical audience. Sparks opened up Menagerie to new blood and we are building on those relationships, taking 2 of the plays forward to further development at Hotbed.
More about Sparks
On Thursday 15th January, SPARKS was opened by Patrick Morris directing This is a Family, Effie Woods’ quartet of pieces. Infants, performed by Gary Mackay and Sarah Maguire, began to examine a theme which was to permeate all four playlets; why do we have children? In This Room found its characters in a hospital ward for a tense and ambiguous exchange between father and daughter. Newborn took as its central character the frustrated, confused six-year old Burney, convincingly played by Caroline Rippin, while finally Skylight saw Rowan Wylie and Stephen von Schreiber give a sweet and sensitive rendition of the eight-year-old Nettie and five-year-old Alex.
I found watching the play an emotional experience, with its mundane tragedy and fraught family relationships brought to life by performance. An interested audience questioned whether the four distinct pieces – which deal with separate characters – hung together enough to give a satisfying, complete experience.
The next night, the studio became a Goth club for Ben Craib’s Teenage Love in Twisted Dreamland, performed by the talented ensemble of Kate McGonigle, Robert Thornton and Aleesha Everitt. As director, I found it exciting to work on a really comic piece, by a young writer without too much reverence, and with a great sense of dialogue and timing. The young performers responded well to the script, and the audience seemed to be with it throughout.
Questions raised at the end centred on the target audience; is this a play for 17-year-olds, in which case would there be potential problems surrounding the subject matter, language etc? Or, is this a piece for older audiences, in which case is there a danger of ‘looking down’ on the characters?
Saturday saw the premiere of Prosperity Three, Alison Falconer’s play set on an oil rig in Nigerian waters. This was performed by Michael Thomson as Karl, a British worker whose main objective is to get off the rig as soon as possible. Des Yankson played the educated, exasperated Ekwueme, while Neil Reidman was Achike, the leader of an impromptu workers’ action. Dialogue in this piece really flew off the page, with a lot of energy and danger, as well as moments of humour and reflection.
The response of the audience was also lively, with some people questioning the balance of the play; is it weighted too much towards the British character? Or too heavily against? Alison’s aim – to explore an ‘international’ event from the point of view of ordinary working people – is not an easy task, but it is a brave one.
The final play to be read in SPARKS was Janice Okoh’s Egusi Soup, telling of the relationships, and the individual fears and loves, of a British Nigerian family, a year on from the death of its patriarch. Staged in the round by director Paul Bourne, the piece was animated by well-judged performances from Neil Reidman and Lynette Clarke as the older generation, and Des Yankson and Wunmi Mosaku as the engaging younger couple. Caroline Partridge, meanwhile, got her teeth into the complex motivations of Anne, who has rejoined the family after years of working – and staying – away.
It was great to see the ease with which the performers engaged with their characters, and brought them to life – usually a sign of good writing. The audience response was warm and interested, suggesting that the play could have wide appeal.
We feel very lucky to have found such interesting pieces, but especially to have engaged with four talented new writers with so much to offer. We’d like once again to say thank you to everyone who entered, to those writers who came along to see what was going on, and to our great critical audience. Cassie Werber, Literary Associate.
After the event we asked our Sparks writers to comment on their experiences and give us some feedback on the process.
Janice Okoh wrote: Because this was the first time I had been involved in a rehearsed reading of a stage play I was filled with trepidation because Egusi Soup still had a way to go. Would the audience boo and hiss me out of the theatre because it wasn’t perfect? I thought. But after Paul Bourne reassured me that this was exactly the right time to get feedback from a wider audience because they could help me decide what parts of the piece to expand or take out, I decided to sit back and leave it to him and the actors.
As soon as the rehearsals started I already began to learn loads about the piece. I already knew that the second act of the play was underwritten but the rehearsals highlighted this as the pace slowed down significantly in the second half. The rehearsals also helped me see that the character of Dele and his relationship with the women in the house needed more work and that I needed to work on the theatricality of a major plot point. Still, the experience was really enjoyable as Paul and the actors were really enthusiastic and came up with loads of ideas and before I knew it, it was time for the real thing.
My nerves came back again and at first found it difficult to listen to the play objectively as I found myself stressing when the audience didn’t laugh at a bit that I thought was funny. They did laugh at some bits, so it wasn’t all bad but it was clear that I needed to sharpen some jokes in the piece and re-write some bits. The feedback was great and encouraging and it was nice to hear that the varied members of the audience found a character or a situation that they identified with because this was my aim – to write a piece that was true to me but that would also resonate with a lot of people. The only bit I regret is not having had some questions ready to put to the audience but I’m hoping these might be answered on the feedback forms that the audience were asked to complete.
Alison Falconer wrote: When I submitted my play to Sparks, I had lived with it a long time – written it, put it away, rewritten it. I won’t say that familiarity had bred contempt exactly.. more, confusion. Being chosen for a Sparks reading was the best thing that could have happened. Cassie Werber, the director, was completely in tune with what I intended the play to be. It was good to hear what I’d written out loud and learn what experienced actors thought about their characters – where my writing had given them a clear picture and where it hadn’t.
The feedback from the audience was useful and I’m looking forward to more from Menagerie. I already have a much clearer idea of what to work on. Seeing all four plays also allowed me to put my work in context with other new writers.
Sparks was a great experience for me. The enthusiasm of those involved has re-ignited my belief in the play and sent me back to work in my normal isolation with a lot of information but also renewed confidence that it is worthwhile.
Ben Craib wrote: Being part of Sparks was a fantastic experience and massively beneficial in the development of my script. After spending so much time writing it and only ever having heard it read out loud (by myself) in my bedroom I felt I had reached the limit of what I could achieve alone. A day’s rehearsal and reading is a fantastic and ruthless test of the work: what is strong about the show appears very strong and what is weak sticks out massively. To see how the actors engage with or have trouble with understanding and playing your characters is a big indication of how well you have written them and the standard to which you are communicating. To see the piece staged as opposed to read makes it very clear very quickly how your visual thinking was working. To work with both talented actors and directors is thrilling – they make things alive thrilling ways you couldn’t imagine and in doing their job well they show very quickly what is redundant in your writing and flawed in your technique (as well as covering it up). This learning is apparent all day long in the rehearsal room but is at it’s strongest in front of an audience. What they loved, what they didn’t like, whether they’re even concentrating, it’s all in right in front of you. You see the story either doing its job or not. After the show I was given sensitive and detailed feedback form Menagerie and overall I felt enough had worked to fill me with the energy to pursue the piece further, and I had a clear sense of what needed to be addressed for it to realise its potential - which is exactly what a day’s rehearsal and reading should do.